The Rays will spend this offseason trying to find a way to replace B.J. Upton- both his offensive production and his starting spot in the outfield. It will be awfully hard to find a player who can replace Upton in both of those regards. But could the Rays fill some of the hole left by Upton with a low-risk option like Nyjer Morgan?
Morgan, 32, is coming off a horrific season for the Milwaukee Brewers, posting a .239/.303/.308 line (64 OPS+), and he has a .280/.341/.364 career line (90 OPS+) in 583 major league games and 2154 plate appearances. Morgan career has been on a strange trajectory, alternating good and bad seasons. Here’s a quick graph of Morgan’s OPS+ by year (100 is average).
Up, down, up, down, up, down. Wow. Based on that graph, Morgan is primed for a solid season next season. Obviously that’s not reason enough to sign Morgan, but he does a few things well. Morgan has 117 career stolen bases, swiping 42 in 2009 and 34 in 2010, and UZR pegs him as a plus defender at all three outfield positions, managing a 15.3 UZR/150 in centerfield, a 19.6 UZR/150 in right field, and a 23.7 UZR/150 in left field. The problem with Morgan is that he lacks power and plate discipline, showing decent bat speed that has allowed him to hit over .300 in 2009 and 2011 but being very dependent on infield and bunt hits to keep his average up. Morgan is also fast, but he’s not very good basestealer, stealing just 117 of 168 bases in his career, a 69.6% success rate, although he has stolen 25 of 34 bases the past two season, a somewhat improved 73.5% success rate. And Morgan is known as a head-case, but Joe Maddon might be the best at dealing with such egos in all of baseball.
Best-case scenario, Morgan hits for a nice average, steals some bases, and is an above-average major league centerfielder primarily thanks to his defense. Morgan would likely hit 8th or 9th in the Rays’ lineup, but he would give the team solid production, and although he’s far from Upton, signing him for a low-risk minor league deal and seeing if he can put together his fourth straight good offensive season in an odd year seems like a worthwhile proposition. Even if the Rays don’t consider him a starting-caliber player anymore, Morgan, a left-handed hitter, has a .297/.352/.398 career line against right-handed pitching and could be a platoon partner for the right-hand hitting Brandon Guyer. One problem is that the Rays already have a relatively similar player to Morgan in Sam Fuld, although Morgan does have a better track record of hitting. But if Morgan is willing to head to the minor leagues for a while if he doesn’t make the Rays’ Opening Day roster, the Rays could use him as insurance for Fuld, who has had his share of injury problems the past couple of seasons, and the rest of their outfielders. If the Rays sign Morgan to a minor league deal, they have almost nothing to lose- if Morgan sputters again, they’ll release him- and have the possibility of getting a solid contributor to their 2013 team. Going from B.J. Upton to Nyjer Morgan in centerfield would be a major letdown. But if Morgan is willing to sign a minor league deal, he is a possible fit for the Rays.